(This article contains mentions of abortion, obstetric abuse, battery and discussion of cis-sexism).
My dissertation looks at one particular ‘girl talk’ and its codes of transmission: women talking about giving birth. I first became interested in birth stories when reading about the 2013 California court case of a woman, Kelly, who sued her obstetrician for battery after he performed an episiotomy on her as she begged him to stop. This is just one story in a history of birthing bodies labouring under abuse of authority: the Mexican woman unable to communicate with her doctor, told by her mother to do as he said; the women pressured into convenience caesareans or else labelled ‘too posh to push’; the trans man terrified to give birth in an NHS hospital; the six out of ten US episiotomies performed without consent.
There is clearly a need for talk about birth- education in the form of transmission of stories. Nevertheless, my reading prompted the realisation that there is only one established genre of women talking about birth: Old Wives’ Tales. The bad reputation of this grisly genre precedes it, leading to the startling realisation that our stories of birth do not come from those who have given birth themselves. Instead, they come from medical professionals, the state, partners and friends. Think about the books you have read with birth scenes, the films, the TV shows. Where were these stories coming from?
And yet, birth is a huge moment in anyone’s life. We need stories about birth. When it comes to talk about birth, a woman talking to other women forms a ‘we’; building solidarity amongst diverse groups and enabling us to transmit feminist critique from this place of solidarity. But we must also recognize that such bonding also engenders division. In a patriarchy, women too are responsible for the transmission, and often the enforcement, of social rules and codes. Where solidarity can be built across women, birth talk can also exclude certain groups.
In the last twenty years, there has been a mainstream emergence of women-authored discourses about birth. A new genre, dubbed ‘mummy diaries’, has emerged, with titles from TOWIE star Sam Faiers, Irish Laureate Anne Enright and GBBO’s Mel Giedroyc. This girl talk is dominated by cis-white women. Feminism and maternity is a sticking point, historically exclusive of women of colour and more recently, of trans folk. Birth can be seen as a focusing point, a catalyst for social forces that are better concealed elsewhere. The abuse of women in childbirth is an enactment of oppression under patriarchy and it would be negligent to ignore the gendered way women in partum have been treated. However, because there has been little written in the Anglo-American tradition about birth since the 1970s, as feminism has moved on from preoccupations with the ‘essential female body’, today I use the potentially gender-exclusive term ‘mother’ for want of a better word. How do we write about birth now? It seems that this area of discussion has lagged behind despite being vitally important. Looking to the future, we must hope that much needed stories of birth will appear from a broader range of people who have given birth themselves.
Importantly, the stagnation of discourse surrounding birth since the 1970s manifests itself today in the way we imagine the mother-foetus relationship. Birth, like abortion, challenges our understanding of what the individual is. Where does one person begin and the other end? Our society and culture has no way to comprehend a more complex understanding of personhood, leaving us with both polarised abortion discourses and an uncomfortable opposition of mother and baby in childbirth. The conclusions of my dissertation became clear to me when I was recently asked by an anti-choice campaigner in Cambridge to engage with the question: ‘is the unborn a person or not?’ My dissertation hopes to show that this is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we might question why and if we need to answer that question. For me, abandoning this question and rethinking the way birth has been formulated may be a step towards liberating the delivery room and bringing talk about birth into 21st century feminism via a more inclusive girl talk.
Main image: El Nacimiento de mi Hija (2005) by Argentine-Spanish artist Ana Alvarez-Errecalde, one of the representations of birth that I analysed in my dissertation.